Q&A: Tonia Teasley '83, CEO, American Red Cross Minnesota and Dakotas Region
The career path of Tonia Teasley '83 has taken her to a number of leadership positions in academia, corporate America, business consulting, and law firms. Along the way, she also founded her own nonprofit, Untangle the Knot, a Minneapolis-based organization advocating to simplify access to services for people with disabilities. Last October, Teasley became the CEO of the Minnesota and Dakotas Region of the American Red Cross, overseeing nine Red Cross chapters with more than 2,600 volunteers.
What inspired you to take on the challenge of this leadership position at the American Red Cross Minnesota and Dakotas Region?
Last year, I saw areas in Northern California that had been devastated by wildfires just a few days earlier. Seeing firsthand the help Red Cross was providing to people who had lost their homes had a huge impact on me. The Red Cross mission was so inspiring I knew I wanted to be part of the organization working to alleviate human suffering.
You have had an interesting career path, including holding leadership positions at a private law firm, in HR, for an educational institution and training and education at a Fortune 500 company. Was being a CEO in the nonprofit sector part of the plan or did it happen organically?
Being a CEO in the nonprofit sector was not “part of the plan.” When I left a higher education leadership position in 2019, I wanted to find a way to make an impact in another organization. When I heard about the Red Cross position, and its mission, the more it resonated with me. I really felt that I could make an impact with this team and with the communities we serve.
How does your legal background connect to being a C-Suite executive for an NPO?
My legal background helps me two ways. First, law school taught me critical thinking skills that always help me think through problems and create solutions. Second, my employment law background gives me a strong foundation for navigating through human resources issues.
What made your time at Minnesota Law memorable?
What sticks with me aren’t specific experiences, but more general feelings—the memories of consistent opportunities to navigate and solve complex problems. Each one helped me develop the skills to assess situations, determine the root cause of an issue, and how to respond with emotional intelligence.
Why did you originally decide to go to law school?
I wanted to be a lawyer since I was 12 (after I gave up on being the first woman astronaut!). I chose Minnesota Law because it is a well-respected law school in the state in which I grew up.
What career advice would you offer to someone newer to the legal professional looking to get established or chart out a career course?
Take the career path that fits your own definition of success—not anyone else’s definition—and be open to paths that may be far different than you imagined. I have had amazing opportunities in my career, some of which involved taking a leap of faith. In each case, I learned something new and found a way to make a difference, which is my definition of success.
You serve as a board member for Beyond Walls Urban Squash Twin Cities. Could you describe a bit about the work of that group and your view on the importance of community involvement?
Beyond Walls Urban Squash Twin Cities works with urban middle school and high school students to inspire confidence and academic excellence through academics, mentoring and squash. Our goal is to create life-long learners and active leaders.
Do you have a favorite motto or inspirational quote?
Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” This is a reminder of the power of service the Red Cross provides to people following a disaster, welcoming them to our shelters and helping them feel hope for the future. It also reminds me to pay attention to how I make people feel in every-day interactions.
What do you do to maintain wellness?
I try to meditate, exercise and eat healthy, but I’m not always successful in making time for those things. No matter what else is going on, however, I always manage to maintain a positive outlook. That does a lot to help me stay healthy both mentally and physically.
How do you like to spend your free time?
I love to travel, both domestically and internationally. When I’m here in Minnesota, in the summer, I love to bike and play pickleball. And in the winter I do a lot of cooking and painting—the latter being a skill I picked up during the pandemic.
What interesting decoration or item might one find in your office or on your desk?
I have a photograph of a duckling to remind me that no matter how fast you are paddling beneath the water, you should always appear calm on the surface. That level of calm is something I strive for in all aspects of my life.